Code-violating apartment complex found in compliance, despite malfunction that caused overnight fire

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A city code inspector testified Wednesday that a Southeast Memphis apartment complex, which is notorious for code violations, is in compliance despite an overnight fire that displaced one of its most vocally upset tenants.

"They're wrong, man," said Antwaun Williams as he burst into tears. "I lost everything last night."

At 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, a fire forced Williams and his family out of their apartment at Eden at Watersedge apartments, 2774 S. Mendenhall Road in Fox Meadows. Williams is the same tenant Andy Wise and the WMC Action News 5 Investigators have been advocating for in their on-going investigation of maintenance failures at the apartment complex. His was one of 75 units at the complex that had been without air conditioning for weeks, some for months.

In court, Bruce Feldbaum, attorney for the complex's owner -- New Life Core Willow Lake LLC of Bloomington, Minnesota -- tried to blame the fire on Williams overloading his apartment's electrical circuits with the use of multiple fish tanks. Feldbaum was unaware Memphis Fire Department's spokesperson Lt. Wayne Cooke had confirmed a malfunctioning electrical wall receptacle caused the fire. "That's more than a slap in the face. That's just telling me you don't care!" exclaimed Williams.

The code inspector assigned to Eden at Watersedge testified the maintenance staff had repaired all non-working air conditioning units. She also said the complex is now "in compliance" with building codes.

Yet Brittany Jackson, a tenant who has been without air conditioning since the first week of May, said in court that she is still without it. The malfunctioning part that was supposed to be replaced remained on the roof above her apartment Wednesday, she said.

"We're not getting help," Jackson said. "The apartment is just trying to say whatever they need to allow us to think it's OK. But it's not OK."

Memphis Code Enforcement Supervisor Anthony Muhammad doesn't think it's OK, either.

Muhammad overrode his inspector's testimony. He told Shelby County Environmental Court Referee Lisa Harris that the complex's maintenance has not been performed in a workman-like manner.

"Due to using people who are not professionally licensed to do so," Muhammad told the court.

"First of all, I'm not going to comment because this is an on-going matter in the courts," Feldbaum said. "Secondly, I do not believe (my clients) have been criminally negligent. This is an 800-unit apartment community. They're trying to provide housing for low-income residents that would not otherwise have housing, and yes, they are entitled to safe, healthy, sanitary housing. They're doing the best they can."

"If they want to play with me, I'll play back," countered Williams, "because they've done a lot of faulty things."

In addition to remaining on the front-burners of Memphis code enforcement and Shelby County Environmental Court, Eden at Watersedge's owner is in trouble with the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South.

The bureau has given the company an F rating for 44 complaints regarding maintenance and neglect of its properties and tenants.

"Toilets overflowing, mold and mildew, air conditioning not working," said bureau President Randy Hutchinson. "We've even asked them to address what we thought was a pattern of complaints, and they didn't do that."

The WMC Action News 5 Investigators have been unable to locate a phone number or email contact for the apartment complex's Minnesota-based owner.

"We regularly work with Memphis Code Enforcement, but do not have a record of contact for this property," said Lauren Magallanes, spokesperson for the Health, Educational & Housing Facility Board of Memphis (HEHF).

According to Shelby County property assessor records, the Minnesota-based owner is enrolled in HEHF's PILOT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) program. It's a financial incentive program that allows qualifying out-of-state property companies to obtain a low-cost lease, then title the property in the board's name.

"Based on your inquiry, we have reviewed our current report for the property, and the tenant benefits were listed as being up to date, but some deferred maintenance items were noted (and) reported to (New Life Core Willow Lake LLC)," said Magallanes. "We will immediately review this matter with a view toward determining if provisions of the PILOT lease have been violated, in which case a Notice of Default will be issued."

"Additionally, our staff has requested our compliance monitoring vendor to conduct a full property inspection as soon as is possible," said HEHF Executive Director Martin Edwards. "Said report will be reviewed in accordance with our existing compliance standards to see if further action will be required to meet the existing tenant benefits of the PILOT agreement."

Harris ordered a status report on the maintenance concerns for Wednesday, August 2, before Shelby County Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter.

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